When Lisa Brunner got the news that Congress had passed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, she was attending a meeting on her reservation, the White Earth Objibwe Nation in Minnesota. “I had to go outside and do a victory dance,” she recalls.
A survivor of sexual assault, Brunner had lobbied Congress for years to restore the ability of tribal courts to prosecute non-Native men who abuse Native women and children on reservations. In the 1978 case Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, the Supreme Court stripped Indigenous nations of criminal jurisdiction over such incidents, ruling that Indians could not prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed against tribal members on their land. The ruling exacerbated an epidemic of domestic and sexual violence on reservations, as 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults against Native women were perpetrated by non-Native men. As a result of the decision, only federal prosecutors could pursue criminal charges against non-Indians, which they declined to do in 67 percent of cases between 2005 and 2009, allowing the largely white perpetrators to continue with impunity. The implementation of VAWA in 2014 restored at least some accountability. “To have a victory like that was really profound and very critical,” Brunner says.
Today, Brunner is returning to Washington, DC, to join a protest on the steps of the Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a case that threatens to undo much of this progress, potentially creating another legal black hole where sexual violence can fester. The question centers on whether Indian nations have the jurisdiction to adjudicate civil claims against non-Indian people and corporations when they commit wrongs on Indigenous land. “As sovereign nations, why are we constantly under attack?” Brunner asks. “We’re in endless conflict.”
If you haven’t heard of Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, you’re not alone. Even as the Roberts Court comes under scrutiny for routinely enhancing corporate power, state and private assaults on Indigenous self-determination rarely get attention. “I feel like Dollar General is using a lot of arguments that corporations routinely use, but somehow when they’re put into an Indian context, most people lose the ability to follow the line,” says Mary Kathryn Nagle, attorney for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and a Cherokee citizen.
The case is rooted in accusations of child sexual abuse brought over a decade ago. In the summer of 2003, a 13-year-old Choctaw student, whose name has been withheld, claimed a white store manager named Dale Townsend repeatedly molested him at a Dollar General store. The teenager was enrolled in his tribe’s job-training program and was placed in the store on the reservation. If the allegations are true, his experience was tragically common. Native children in the United States endure rates of trauma three times the national average, suffering from PTSD at a scale comparable to veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.